How to Train for an Ultra Trail Race or Run
Ultra running is becoming more and more popular as people become more curious about just how far they can push themselves. So how do you prepare your body to run for over 26 miles?
Here are a few things that I target when helping people prepare for an ultra trail race:
- Climbing and Descending
- Race Logistics
Endurance: Time on Your Feet
The minimum requirement for any race is that you can complete the given distance. For ultra runs this can be a bit tricky as upwards of 50 miles you are unlikely to be able to do the distance in its entirety in training. However, just as you don’t really need to run 26 miles in training to run a marathon, you don’t really need to run 50 miles to complete a 50 mile race, but you do need to do some long days to get used to running for long periods of time. I usually like to work in terms of time rather than distance.
I usually start an ultra training plan for a specific race by looking at how long the race takes a variety of runners and thinking about where the athlete is likely to fall within the results. So if we assume that on form a given athlete might usually in the first third of women in the race then I will look at how long it took the first third of women to do the race the last time it was held and assume that it will take a similar amount of time. From this I can then start planning training to prepare the athlete to be on their feet for that length of time.
Depending on your experience you may need to spend some time just building up your long weekend run so that you can regularly run 3-4 hours without needing to take a week off to recover. This can take some time if your current longest run is only 1 hour 30 minutes duration. So an initial 6 week base phase of training might look something like this:
Once you know you can support 3-4 hours and recover with ease, you can then think about planning some big endurance weekend blocks where you have some long days on your feet, ideally on the race course, but if not on similar terrain. Because these long days are quite tiring, this isn’t something you can do every week, but if you can plan one every month or so this is enough to give you the stimulus and testing you need for a long race.
I often plan back to back days in these blocks so that over a course of the weekend you may cover a good percentage of the mileage of the race over the last big weekend block (or all depending on the race distance).
Climbing and Descending
If you have entered a race with a lot of climb then as part of your training plan you will need to include some climbing and descending practice. Looking at the race profile and trying to complete a similar percentage of climb over a given distance will ensure your training runs are imitating the profile of the race if you can’t get on to the actual race course.
In particular it’s good to practise both climbing and descending because after many miles and with the build up of fatigue you can easily fall or just become too weak to hold yourself upright when descending steep terrain.
So for the 50 mile race in October that I am training for I looked at the full course profile and saw that in the first 30 miles there is 7975ft of climb so I then planned a training route for my 30 mile run (which I could not do on the course) with a similar amount of climb broken down in a similar way:
A good way to make sure that you are able to support yourself whilst descending and to improve your climbing strength if you don’t have much access to hills where you live is a decent strength programme. This might include focussed exercises on known weak areas (I often go over on my ankle and have a dodgy left hip so heal raises, hip hikes are a part of my daily routine).
If you are confident enough or have someone to help then free weight exercises can be a great addition as they challenge both your balance and improve your strength, key factors needed in trail running.
I like to have a focussed time for strength training (usually in the base period of a plan which often falls in the winter months) where I the goal is to make good strength gains with two or three sessions per week. This means having to sacrifice some running volume, doing a shorter run or even having a non running day on the days when a strength session is planned but I think this is worth it for the extra gains.
Good strength exercises include:
- Squats (straight, lateral or split)
Good balance and strength exercises include:
- Single leg Romanian dead lift
- In line chop and lift
Good prehab exercises might include:
- Single leg bridge (glute activation)
- Clams (glute activation)
- Heal Raise straight or bent leg (ankle strength and stability)
- Hip hike (for hip strength)
- Single leg step down (for hip strength).
- Monster walks (glute activation).
A good sports physiotherapist will be able to advise you on the best exercises to cover your own particular weaknesses.
It’s really easy to over-train when preparing for high mileage events so recovery from long runs and harder sessions is really important to plan. Depending on your fitness levels and experience you may need as much as a week after a big weekend block of training before you are recovered enough to start building again. One of the things I have learned over the years is how to focus on recovery so that I get the most out of the training that I do.
Whilst some people find that light exercise helps recovery (short easy bike spin, easy swimming, walking) others find they need a complete break from exercise to recover. I usually plan at least one day of complete rest every 7 to 10 days.
Good ways to promote recovery in the hours and days after a long run or hard weekend block of training include:
- Sleeping long and well
- Eating well – in the first hours getting the calories in but in the days afterwards ensuring you eat a good amount of protein and get plenty of vitamins from fruit and vegetables. There is some evidence to support the intake of free radicals found in so-called ‘super foods’ like goji berries, tart cherry juice, beetroot, blueberries can also help recovery.
- Staying hydrated – this would include continuing to drink electrolyte drink in the hours after a long training run – it has much needed calories and is designed for optimum absorption.
- Doing relaxing enjoyable things – there is evidence that this improves recovery so spending some time doing these things is good investment. This really is individual so go with what works for you – watch tv, read a book, go see some friends, bake a cake – whatever works for you.
Long events require a massive amount of energy – more energy than you can store. Whilst the training you do, in particular the long runs, will to a certain extent train your body to access fat stores for energy (of which you have plenty) you will still need to eat as you run. Studies have shown that greater intake of carbohydrates improve performance, but that as a minimum 200-300 calories per hour (30-50g of carbohydrates) is needed to keep going.
The longer you run the harder it is to maintain this quota and many runners often experience some gastric problems in longer races so practising eating and running in training can really help . Eating is really individual and what works for one person does not work for another so find the foods that work for you. There are so many brands of sports nutrition out there these days and many of them do ‘sample packs’ where they give you a range of their products which is a good way to try things.
You might find that the simplest for you is to make your own food so again, experimenting with different things and finding something you like, is easy to eat and practical to carry is a key element of your long training runs.
I encourage athletes to have a variety of ‘go to’ foods, both sweet and savoury that they know work for them. This might include:-
- Long distance gels
- Jelly bars/sweets
- Banana and date bars
- Banana and almond bars (salty)
- Peanut butter bars (salty/sweet)
- (Vegan) Cheese spread sandwich
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Salted peanuts
- Oranges, banana or watermelon although not practical to carry can be nice if you know they work and if they have them at aid stations on race day
Along with eating right, drinking right is key to finishing long events; it’s a good idea to have a drink with electrolytes and calories so if the worst comes to the worse you know that you can keep taking in some calories in my drink. For really hot days also taking in additional plain water at aid stations (or natural clean flowing water if available) as otherwise the electrolyte gets too sickly. How much you need to take on will depend on your sweat rate and the demands of the race on a particular day, but you can check out my article on how much you should drink here.
Once you know you can meet the minimum requirements of the race you may want to think about making yourself faster. Doing some speed work can help improve both your running efficiency and your overall pace at lower intensities so adding some speed into your training programme can be a great addition. It can also be a good way to make fitness gains if you have less time. The nature of the speed you do will depend to a certain extent on your fitness levels and your ability to recover, and the amount of time you have to train.
VO2Max Training – these sessions involve working above lactate threshold and include hard repetitions of around 3-5 minutes with a decent recovery. The fitness gains from this type of training happen relatively quickly so this can be planned towards the end of a training plan as you are heading towards the peaking phase. However, the injury risk is also greater and so if you have had bad injuries in the past you will need to be very careful not to do too much. The intense nature of the session requires a good amount of recovery and in general means lowering your overall volume to accommodate the greater training load required by the session. Typically this type of session should be completed once every 7 – 10 days.
Lactate Threshold/Function Threshold Training – these sessions involve working at or about lactate threshold/functional threshold pace/power and include repetitions of ‘controlled speed’ of 8-20+ minutes with less recovery. They tend to be longer sessions, but improving lactate threshold improves running efficiency and speed endurance making the long endurance running easier and faster. The gains from this type of training take longer so if I choose to focus on this element I will do so after the first base phase of training when endurance levels have reached a minimum level.
Above Aerobic Threshold Training – these sessions involve working at a ‘sustainably hard pace’ in repetitions or one block of 30 to 90 minutes (depending on fitness). The physiological cost of this type of training is equal to that of Lactate Threshold training so arguably it has little benefit but it can work well to increase uphill endurance if done as a long continuous climb and again helps improve overall endurance and pace by pulling up the aerobic threshold – key for ultra endurance running. I also like to use this type of training for injury prone athletes or athletes not so experienced with speed as it holds less injury risk than both VO2Max and and Lactate Threshold Training. Some athletes will be racing at around this effort during the climb on in their event so it’s a good way of learning the pace/effort. These sessions can also work well during periods of high work stress as the stress of the run seems less; I will also add this into early stages of the base phase to prepare for more intense speed work later on.
A key part to long adventures is being prepared and the training is only part of that; thinking about the logistics of the day is really important. Organised events usually provide comprehensive information which you need to read in order to know what is expected of you and plan your own logistics according the rules and services provided by the race organisers. So you will need to spend some time studying the race website to familiarise yourself with how the race is being implemented; there is usually a race handbook, timetable for the day and/or list of rules that help. Key things to look for are:
- Mandatory kit so you know you have everything required. Also thinking about any extra kit you might like to take.
- Race Route – familiarising yourself with the race route either by studying the maps or actually training on the course is a good way to prepare; as mentioned earlier even if you can’t train on the route looking at the course profile can help when planning training routes which closely mimic the demands of the course. It’s good to double check you have the correct maps with the up to date route marked on them especially if the race is not flagged as courses can change from year to year. There are also sometimes instructions on where you must follow the exact flagged route and where you are free to take any route you see fit between points.
- Aid stations – what they have and whether what they provide means you can carry less. Also, how frequent they are – some races may not have any or very limited aid stations as they are designed to be (semi) autonomous.
- GPS – some races involve an element of map reading and gps tracking is not allowed so it’s always good to check before entering the race. Where one is available you can download it to your running watch and follow it on race day if permitted.
- Bag drop offs – Most point to point races will have the option of a bag drop off so you can have dry warm kit and whatever else you might need at the finish. Checking how to drop the bag off and where to find it at the finish so you can have everything you need is part of planning in the days before the race. Some races also offer a bag drop (or more than one) for so you can have a stash of spare supplies part way through the race; this can make a big difference as you may not have to carry all the food and water you need with you for the whole race making your pack significantly lighter.
- Pacers/support crew – whether these are allowed on the course and if so if there are points that they can’t access. Pacers can make a big difference especially towards the end of a long race and support crew can be invaluable for motivating you, helping you with difficult decisions mid-race when you are tired and just generally making sure you get round in one piece.
- Shuttle buses to/from the start/finish – sometimes you need to pay extra at registration for shuttle buses and they can all work a bit differently – ie some shuttle from the finish to the start before the race so that you park at the finish, others shuttle from finish at the end and have you parking at the start of the race.
- Start and expected finish times – If you check this out relatively early on you can decide whether you will be running during the night; that way you can plan some training night runs if you don’t typically train during in the dark.
- What ifs – I like to spend some time with athletes before any race thinking about ‘what ifs’ so that they can be prepared physically and mentally for any eventuality. What ifs usually include what to do if you get injured/too tired, start to go on a negative spiral, feel nauseous and are unable to eat/drink, get lost. Whilst we can’t cover every eventuality having a plan for the most common might (and has in the past) save the race.
Putting it all together
The trickiest part of planning any training is putting it all together in a way that gives you enough of the right types of stimulus and enough rest in between. This is really individual so if you are thinking of buying an off the shelf plan have a look carefully at the plan’s parameters to see if they fit for you including your current fitness levels, your race event, the time you have to train on both a week by week basis and the number of weeks before your key race.
If you would like some help and guidance in your training please get in touch and check out our coaching options; we offer a variety of programmes to suit all abilities and interests from group plans to 1-1 coaching.
Should I have a support crew?
You don’t have to have a support crew, but it can be really helpful during long events to have people at aid stations to help you stay rational when you are tired; a pacer towards the end of a race can be invaluable. Good support crews will know exactly what you need and have it ready for you in the order you need it. They will know what to say and what not to say, especially when you are struggling. They will know you well enough to judge if you are too injured/damaged to continue even if you don’t and they will have the guts to tell you. Good pacers will know where to run (behind, at the side, in front) whether or not to push you and be willing to go at the planned pace – they will be there for you not themselves. Even if you don’t have an on site support crew, having some one you can phone if you need advice can really help.